Friday, January 07, 2011

Colorizing Twain

I am second to no one in my admiration for Mark Twain.

There was a reason why, as I observed in 2009, William Faulkner called him "the father of American literature."

On that occasion, I also pointed out that his works had "fallen victim to 20th century political correctness."

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," I wrote — also regarded by many, if not most, literary scholars as the definitive "great American novel" — was under assault "because of its frequent use of the word 'nigger,' which was commonly used in the 19th century."

In this matter, I have a new abomination to report — and you can thank, of all people, an English professor, who undoubtedly must have spent much time in college studying the great writers and their works.

He doesn't seem to have learned much from that experience.

This professor (Alan Gribben of Auburn University), Julie Bosman for the New York Times reports, approached the publisher (NewSouth Books) last summer with the idea of publishing "Huck Finn" with slave replacing nigger. The publisher will publish the edited version next month.

The professor told the Times that he wanted "to get us away from obsessing about this one word and just let the stories stand alone."

Sounds like a good intention. But you know what they say about good intentions, don't you?

Twain himself said, "Half of the results of a good intention are evil; half the results of an evil intention are good."

Personally, I think all of the results of this particular good intention are, if not exactly evil, certainly influenced by it.

A book like "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is a priceless window into history. It tells of an America in another century on the brink of unprecedented advancement. A gifted writer like Twain can describe the clothes people wore, the houses they lived in, the people they knew, the language they used, and the reader will come away with a clear understanding of what life was like in those times.

Gribben protests that "I'm by no means sanitizing Mark Twain. The sharp social critiques are in there. The humor is intact."

Maybe so, but to change even a single word from the way people spoke in the late 19th century in order to conform to some sort of 21st century notion of political correctness is just wrong.

(Incidentally, the word injun was replaced with Indian.)

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" has been getting people worked up for more than 125 years. It's interesting, as Hillel Italie writes for Associated Press, that "[w]hen first published, 'Huckleberry Finn' was criticized for advocating bad behavior, for being a 'coarse book not likely to set a good example for the young,' says Justin Kaplan, author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning Twain biography."

As time went by, Italie observes, "values changed, (and) so did the objections."

Now the objections center on the language of another time, the context of another era, because the values of today are uncomfortable with the values of yesterday. Well, that isn't enough for me.

First of all, it is ridiculous, as I wrote in 2009, even to imply that Twain was a racist because a racist word appears in one of his novels. It's like saying that Carroll O'Connor was a bigot because he played one on television.

But, beyond that, I believe it is wrong to tinker with a writer's words. You may not like them, but that is not enough justification, in a free society, to censor them. A writer is an artist. If you're going to change an artist's work, you'd better have some damn good reasons.

The possibility that someone might be offended simply isn't good enough.

To me, it's like that period some 20 years or so ago when it was popular to "colorize" films that were made in black and white. I objected to that then for much the same reason that I object to this unnecessary deletion of an expletive. It is an alteration of an artist's work.

Besides, I'm not so sure that, by removing a word like "nigger" from the book, you remove the tension and the misunderstanding of its application by earlier generations. Obviously, in the 21st century, that word has some very ugly history, but much of that history hadn't happened by the time "Huck Finn" was published in 1885.

It's worth remembering that, even if "nigger" (and "injun," for that matter) is stricken from the book, it will still contain references to homicides, child abuse, substance abuse and other behaviors that most parents probably would prefer their children didn't emulate.

(If bad behavior becomes the basis for criticism, I guess that will mean we have come full circle.)

In his own defense, Twain recommended that those who desire more guidance on those subjects should consult "an unexpurgated Bible" — which never uses the word "nigger" but does discuss murders, fraud, theft and alcohol consumption (if not abuse) at length.